“Super 8,” “Submarine,” and the Polar Film Festival: Movie Tickets

The Washingtonian’s guide to the most interesting movies playing around town in the coming week

By: Ian Buckwalter

Richard Ayoade directs his first feature film, Submarine, an adaption of a 2008 coming-of-age novel about a Welsh teenager.

Submarine
Richard Ayoade should be familiar to US fans of British television for his roles in hits like The Mighty Boosh and The IT Crowd. After doing time behind the camera for those shows as well as a few comedic shorts, he’s directed his first feature film, an adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 coming-of-age novel about Oliver, a disaffected Welsh teenager. With his tendency toward literary pretentions and oddball affectations, Oliver feels something like a neurotic and aspirationally erudite Holden Caulfield, and the stress of navigating his first relationship while his parents’ marriage seems to be unraveling drives the story.

Ayoade’s film has its own affectations, which run to the quirky and whimsical, with a strong dark streak running through it all. They make Submarine play out a little like Wes Anderson’s Rushmore crossed with Harold & Maude. That’s an aesthetic that’s bound to rub some people the wrong way, as Ayoade pushes those aspects to the limit, with fantasy super 8 movies that play in Oliver’s overactive imagination, and comically twee homages to classic films like The 400 Blows. The director’s fast pace and clear joy in building this story out of a stew of influences generally overrides any distancing effects of his technique, making the film a sweet and appealing exercise in teenage nostalgia.

Opens Friday at Bethesda Row.

From Here to Obscurity

Local comedy troupe the Langley Punks were a local mainstay during the 1970s and eventually became part of a comedy collective called the Travesty Group. They spent years creating comedic shorts and recordings with the likes of a young Sam Raimi and garnering high praise from like minded bizarro-comedy personalities like Dr. Demento. This year represents the 30th anniversary of one of their best-loved shorts, Hyattsville Holiday, and to celebrate, they’re holding a one-time screening of that film, along with a collection of some of the best of their other work through the years. Everyone from the Travesty Group that could be gathered together for the event will be there, including all four of the original Langley Punks.
 

Friday at 7:30 PM at the AFI Silver.


Polar Film Festival
Given the heat wave outside, sitting in an air conditioned theater all day and watching films about the Antarctic sounds pretty appealing. National Geographic, along with the British and Norwegian embassies, has put together just such an escape from the heat this weekend. Things start off with the popular, Academy Award-winning 2005 penguin documentary March of the Penguins. Having enticed everyone in with a familiar crowd pleaser right off the bat, they move on to slightly more esoteric territory with The Great White Silence, a 1924 British silent documentary about Robert Falcon Scott’s failed attempt to reach the South Pole, which contains a great deal of actual footage from that expedition. The final two films focus on Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who actually did manage to become the first person to reach the pole, in 1911. The first, Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition, is a recently assembled short silent film of restored footage from that trip, and that’s followed by Frozen Heart, a 1999 biographical documentary about Amundsen himself.

This Saturday beginning at 11 AM at National Geographic. Free.

Super 8
JJ Abrams’ latest, produced by Steven Spielberg, solidifies the influence Spielberg’s work has always had on Abrams’ crowd-friendly brand of adventure-laden sci-fi. Here, that manifests itself in a plot that draws heavily on elements from E.T., The Goonies, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Fifteen-year-old Joel Courtney makes an impressive debut as Joe, a teenager in a small Ohio town in 1979 who has just lost his mother to a steel mill accident. He and his friends are attempting to make their own super 8 zombie film to enter in a local film competition when one of their scenes is interrupted by a train derailing in the background. Its cargo is unknown to the kids or the town, but the military is quick to swoop in and start secretively cleaning things up. While the film is a little uneven at times, and suffers from perhaps too much nostalgic reverence for the films that it emulates, it’s also hugely entertaining, full of heart, and a lot of fun to watch, owing in large part to the excellent chemistry between the young actors that form its core.
Opens Friday at theaters all over the area.

Desk Set
The second to last of the eight onscreen collaborations between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn finds the pair at odds in a romantic comedy about technology in the workplace. Hepburn plays the head of a television network’s reference library, while Tracy plays the inventor of an “electronic brain” (a computer) that will be used to help with some processing functions and increase efficiency while the network merges with another company. Of course, tension arises between Hepburn and Tracy’s characters as they combat over the relative merits of human and mechanized efficiency. It’s a film that was lighter than a feather when it was released a half century ago, and seems positively quaint now, given our absolute reliance on those electronic brains to do anything and everything in the workplace. Of course, when you’ve got chemistry like Tracy and Hepburn, even the most throwaway premise becomes a charming way to spend a couple of hours.

Friday at 8:30 PM at the Hillwood Estate. Grounds open at 6:30 ($15 suggested donation).

Louder Than a Bomb
Every year in Chicago, students from dozens of high schools compete in the nation’s largest poetry slam competition, which ends in a huge slam before a large audience at the Vic Theatre. Directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel documented the 2008 event, the year after a Cinderella-story upset won the title for a troubled inner-city school in 2007. Focusing on individuals from that school and three others, the filmmakers showcase the immense talents of these teens, the varied inspirations for those talents from the students’ personal lives, and the atmosphere of collaboration that is part of the creative process of the competition.

Director Jon Siskel will be present for Q&As at Friday and Saturday night's screenings, and West End will also host live poetry slams on both nights, with the DC Youth Slam Poetry Team on Friday, and Beltway Poetry Slam Saturday.

Opens Friday at West End Cinema.

DVD/Blu-ray Pick of the Week: The Stunt Man

This Peter O’Toole film from 1980 was practically abandoned by the studio upon release (despite eventually picking up three Academy Award nominations), then became a cult hit in the ‘80s. O’Toole plays Eli, a diabolically manipulative film director who makes a deal with a fugitive, Cameron (Steve Railsback), who finds his way onto the set and manages to accidentally cause the death of a stunt man: Replace the dead stunt man, and Eli won’t turn him over to the police. Only with that kind of leverage, Eli begins pushing Cameron into some highly dangerous situations. Writer/director Richard Rush makes the film an off-balance and surreal experience by manipulating the action to often create uncertainty as to whether events are taking place in the movie that Eli is shooting or in real life. That uncertainty doubles as Rush’s tool to control the viewer and Eli’s tool to control Cameron in a neatly constructed piece that was far more self-aware than one might expect, which explains the studio’s reluctance to get behind it, not to mention the lukewarm critical reaction. For more on the film, check out this excellent New York Times interview with Peter O’Toole from this past Monday.

Special Features: Severin Films’s new Blu-ray release is the first new release of the film in a decade, and in addition to the new high-definition treatment, there are a wealth of extras on the disk, including actor and director commentaries from the original DVD release, plus a full two-hour documentary about the making of the film, which was itself directed by Stunt Man director Richard Rush, a shorter documentary about Rush, extensive interviews with the stars, plus trailers and deleted scenes.
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